Tropical Biology Semester

Next Time: Spring 2024

Student holding a tropical iguanaOverview

The Tropical Biology Semester is a package of concurrent coursework totaling 16 units, appropriate for upper-division undergraduate or graduate credit*. The purpose of the courses is to expose students to the biology of the Neotropics by visiting the major ecosystems/plant communities of Ecuador. Three courses and a seminar address biodiversity, zoology, ecology, and conservation by integrating a strong field component with lectures, labs, and discussions of relevant literature. Students will conduct field projects that will incorporate experimental design, field techniques, data analysis, and the presentation of information as a scientific paper and as a poster.


Based on previous offerings, we estimate the cost to be $6000 - cost decreases with increased enrollment; if payment exceeds expenses, students will receive a refund. Cost estimate does not include CA resident CSU fees, out-of-state fees, or CSUN travel insurance (~$200), but does include airfare, in-country transportation, and room and board. Pending our grant success, the cost may decrease.


Weeks 1-4 will be spent on CSUN campus with lectures and laboratory activities for each course covering background information, reading and discussing relevant literature, learning field methods, and experimental design and analysis. Weeks 5-11 will be spent in Ecuador visiting a diversity of localities, including the Andean cloud forests and the Amazon basin. During this field portion, students will be designing experiments, gathering data, and presenting their preliminary results to the class, as well as discussing relevant literature. Each student will work on a project for each course, and will also work on group projects integrating the Tropical Biology Semester courses. If we are successful in acquiring enough funding through grants, our final week will be spent visiting the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.

Palm tree frog

Weeks 12-15 will be spent back on campus summarizing the field results. During this final portion of the semester, students will analyze the data collected during their field experiments, write papers on individual projects, and present their results in a poster session patterned on those given at scientific conferences. Students will be expected to present the questions that their experiments addressed, describe their experimental design, and discuss their results in the context of the current literature. The poster session will take place on the last day of classes, where students will present their findings to the CSUN community. This poster session will promote student interactions with colleagues and those interested in this program.

Course Descriptions

TROPICAL ECOLOGY AND CONSERVATION [5 units total: lecture/lab 3 units, field 2 units; BIOL 439/L with 492S]. This course will cover a broad array of population, community and ecosystem-level concepts and processes including demography, competition, mutualism, herbivory, predation, succession, and energy flow. Tropical conservation issues will also be addressed in these contexts. During the first four weeks of the semester, students will be exposed to foundational information and field methods.

BIOLOGY OF TROPICAL VERTEBRATES [5 units total: lecture/lab 3 units, field 2 units; BIOL 446/L with 492T]. This course will deal with functional morphology, behavior, ecology, systematics, and evolution of tropical vertebrates. The first four weeks on campus will cover lectures on amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, followed by labs where many of the specimens likely encountered in the field will be displayed.

SEMINAR ON TOPICS IN TROPICAL BIOLOGY [3 units total: BIOL 449 (undergraduate) or BIOL 615G (graduate)]. This course will integrate biology with aspects of tropical physical science, culture, and politics. Specialists in a variety of areas, not strictly biological, will be guest speakers during the semester. This will provide students with a context for field experiences in the tropics. It will also give students an appreciation for the people and processes that affect (or are affected by) tropical biology. This seminar will also serve as a forum for presentations of the students' field research findings.

TROPICAL BIODIVERSITY [3 units total: lecture 2 units, field 1 unit; BIOL 448 with 492U]. This course will give students an in-depth systematic treatment of tropical biodiversity, primarily of plants and invertebrates. During the first four weeks of the semester, students will be exposed to foundational information and field methods.

*Note for graduate students. Only 9 units of 400-level courses can be applied to MS degree.

students in a boat traveling up amazon river.Additional Considerations

A valid passport is required. You will be expected to have any required immunizations up to date prior to departure. Immunizations can be obtained through your county health department or CSUN Student Health Center. Consult your doctor for details.

The Tropical Biology Semester has limited enrollment, so please complete the application in order to be considered for Spring 2024. Interviews will begin as early as April/May.

For questions, contact either:

Dr. Fritz Hertel (818) 677-3353

Dr. Dave Gray (818) 677-7653

Dr. Tim Karels (818) 677-3356

If you are selected to participate in the Tropical Biology Semester, you will be asked to send a non-refundable deposit of $1000. This deposit is required because all travel arrangements must be made well in advance of the trip, and the cost to each student depends on how many students enroll in the course, thus, some assurance that you are serious about taking the semester is required. Deposits will be refunded in the unlikely event that the Tropical Biology Semester is cancelled.
bat being held for measuring.